Dan Bocik, Chef and Owner at a tavola, joins the podcast to discuss how he’s built a great team at his restaurant through values-based hiring, hands-on training and a commitment to customer service.
Adam Robinson: Welcome to The Best Team Wins Podcast where we feature entrepreneurs and business leaders whose exception approach to the people side of their business has led to incredible results. My name is Adam Robinson, and for the next 25 minutes, I’ll be your host as we explore how to build your business through better hiring. Today we have Dan Bocik, the founder and owner of a tavola, a restaurant located in Chicago, Illinois. Dan has 10 employees. He’s been in business since 1995. As we were talking before we started rolling here, just profiled on a pretty well-known restaurant review show on WGN here in Chicago. Very, very cool. Congratulations on all the success.
Dan Bocik: Thank you.
Adam Robinson: The best learning happens through real experiences shared by fellow entrepreneurs. Dan, we’re excited to learn from you today. Thanks for being here.
Dan Bocik: No, thank you. Thanks for having me.
Adam Robinson: We are going to talk about the people side of your business, but before we dive in, set the stage for us. Tell us about a tavola and what you’re up to.
Dan Bocik: Yes, thank you, thank you, Adam. A tavola, the name means “to the table,” and I named a restaurant that I founded in 1995 to the table because that’s what it’s really all about. It’s about the food and where we recreate authentic Italian dishes on a nightly basis. I had thought that it’s listed alphabetically first couldn’t hurt either.
Adam Robinson: Right. Yeah, it’s a tavola with four A’s. Capital A, lower a.
Dan Bocik: Right next to quadruple A exterminator.
Adam Robinson: You’re trained to do this. You visited Italy.
Dan Bocik: I’m a chef. I was a chef of an Italian restaurant in Italy.
Adam Robinson: Very cool. Dan knows his stuff, ladies and gentleman. If you’re in Chicago and want a place to eat, a tavola is an exceptional place. We’ve had a couple of leadership team dinners there for our company. I think we drank all your wine. We had a good time. If listeners want to learn more or schedule a reservation when they’re in town, what’s the best way for them to do that?
Dan Bocik: Atavolachicago.com or my personal, to see what I’m up to and track all the goings on is danbocik.com.
Adam Robinson: B-O-C-I-K.
Dan Bocik: B-O-C-I-K.
Adam Robinson: Very cool. All right, let’s talk about people, Dan. 1995, you’re getting started, trained chef. Have worked for a restaurant, now of course, you’re in business for yourself. Things are a little different. Talk to us …
Dan Bocik: Very different.
Adam Robinson: … about that first team.
Dan Bocik: The first team. Well, the reason I started my restaurant was I kept getting fired from all my other jobs. I wanted to be gainfully employed. That’s all I wanted to do is just have a job more than a year and keep and get a steady paycheck. I got tired of complaining about all my bosses.
Adam Robinson: That will get you fired.
Dan Bocik: That will get you fired, and it has. I just decided to launch out and just start it myself. I didn’t have a name. I didn’t have a menu. I didn’t have a concept. I just like, “I’m going to start a restaurant and learn as I go.” I learned very fast that I need some employees. I need some help. I can’t do everything. My first employee once I finally got up was a guy named Lou. He was 16. He was a son of the building owner that I rented the space from.
Adam Robinson: Different location than it is today?
Dan Bocik: I was 26 feet away. It was next door.
Adam Robinson: Okay, all right.
Dan Bocik: Lou is 16, and he kept showing up for work, so hired. That was it.
Adam Robinson: Yeah, right.
Dan Bocik: That was the only qualification I had was somebody that could show up and do some things I told them to do.
Adam Robinson: Other than following orders and showing up, what were the things that Lou did that helped keep you going in those early days?
Dan Bocik: He helped me unload the van to bring ingredients in to prep in the kitchen. He helped clean the dining room. When we eventually had a guest after a couple weeks or months, he talked to them and gave them plates of food from the kitchen.
Adam Robinson: Yeah, great.
Dan Bocik: That was it.
Adam Robinson: It was pretty straightforward.
Dan Bocik: Very.
Adam Robinson: Take us through then that first guest through to when you knew, “Wow, okay, this is working.”
Dan Bocik: I knew it was working we came out about three months or four months of sitting basically alone on weekends in my restaurant, where I thought people would just be flocking to me because I’m me.
Adam Robinson: Right.
Dan Bocik: I make good food or something.
Adam Robinson: Right.
Dan Bocik: We got noticed, and we came out in the Best New Restaurant issue of 1995 of Chicago Magazine.
Adam Robinson: Wow, that’s a big deal.
Dan Bocik: It is a big deal. I went from our biggest day was 14 people on a Saturday night to coming out in the Best New Restaurant. That day, they gave me two weeks notice, and still our largest day in business was that first weekend. We did 111 people.
Adam Robinson: Wow.
Dan Bocik: I had to hire a staff.
Adam Robinson: Sure.
Dan Bocik: I didn’t have the money. I didn’t know how to hire. I had to put together some extra people in the kitchen and extra people in the dining room and train them and time it perfectly so that by the time they were trained, they would serve the guests, and the guests would think that we had been working together for a year or two. Then I had the money to pay them. It worked out.
Adam Robinson: Yeah, clearly it worked out. What did you do to staff a restaurant in a week? How did you do that? Back in 1995, I mean there was no Craigslist.
Dan Bocik: Pre-Hierology.
Adam Robinson: There’s no job boards. There was not SaaS. There was no cloud.
Dan Bocik: No cellphones.
Adam Robinson: Exactly right. We all had Nokias, if that, back then, and that was it. What did you do then, help wanted on the door?
Dan Bocik: What did I do? I think I went around to anybody I knew and asked for help.
Adam Robinson: Just anyone wanting to pick up a shift and learn.
Dan Bocik: Other restaurant owners or something like that. I really don’t even remember. It was kind of a blur.
Adam Robinson: Here we are 23 years later.
Dan Bocik: 23.
Adam Robinson: Congratulations. That’s a long time in any business, let alone a restaurant business.
Dan Bocik: A restaurant year is like a dog year, so what is it, nine to one.
Adam Robinson: Yeah, man. Congratulations. Talk to us about how do you run it now. You’re of course doing more than just a tavola. You’re developing a menu profitability app and some of these pretty interesting things based on your experience. Tell us about the team you have now.
Dan Bocik: The seminal moment, well I made hiring mistakes for 19 years. That’s just the honest truth. I didn’t know how to hire. I thought I’ll hire people like me or people I like or people that have experience. That’s absolutely not the right way to go. I was sitting in a cabana with Todd Smart in Puerto Vallarta.
Adam Robinson: Todd Smart is a business coach and EOS implementer, who we both know.
Dan Bocik: Yes. I heard Todd three or four times, “We’re going through the EOS VTO.” I heard, “Hire for values, train for skill.” I immediately came back and wrote a job description that didn’t list anything that the person was going to be doing. It was of values, my values, the company’s values. I found the best employee I’ve ever had.
Adam Robinson: No kidding.
Dan Bocik: Carla. Carla was the best employee I ever had. From that second, it was hire for values, train for skill.
Adam Robinson: What were the values that you shared on that job description?
Dan Bocik: Someone likes people. I’m in the hospitality business. Surprisingly, you have to like people. You have to want to serve people because we all serve people in some form or another. We also go to the source of knowledge. It’s nothing we learn hypothetically or we read in a book. We actually go to foreign countries to learn to cook or we spend our time growing up doing this. It comes to find out that we love doing it. Going to the source is really and over communicating to the guests, I think is really one of the things as well. Many times, we are afraid of speaking to the guests.
Adam Robinson: Sure.
Dan Bocik: It’s really just a conversation. It’s really just a conversation asking people how they are and asking them how can we solve their problems.
Adam Robinson: That’s great. Talk about going to the source. What does that mean? Are you flying people to Italy to learn to cook?
Dan Bocik: No. Well, I flew to Italy to learn to cook. I lived there a year-and-a-half. I got a one-way ticket, and I dropped in. I knew how to say spaghetti, and that was it. I didn’t know anybody. I did that. When I say we go to the source, it’s a way of life for people. It’s really someone’s core passion of what they’re doing.
Adam Robinson: So firsthand knowledge of.
Dan Bocik: Firsthand knowledge of.
Adam Robinson: Yeah, interesting.
Dan Bocik: For me, I do about one or two things really well. When I start doing three, four, 10 things, that’s where it goes off the rails for me. The real first question is what are we passionate about? I happen to be passionate about cooking for people and making them happy, just like my grandmother did when I was five years old at her kitchen table.
Adam Robinson: Very cool. The team, so then based on those values, it sounds like beginning with that moment where this epiphany of “I’m going to hire based on values,” and you get a Carla. Then that was 19 years in. Here you’ve been for the last six, no fours years …
Dan Bocik: Four years almost.
Adam Robinson: … four years, hiring for value, training for skill, as you say. What has been the impact? Tell me how that’s impacted your ability to operate and operate profitably.
Dan Bocik: I’m a lot happier.
Adam Robinson: Yeah, okay.
Dan Bocik: I’m much happier, and everybody around me is happier because they’re in the right place. I’m not trying to put a square peg in a round hole or a term that I learned, make a hunter out of a farmer or a farmer out of a hunter. I am asking the questions to find out who they are and what they want. Because if they don’t get what I’m doing, if they don’t want what I’m doing, and if they don’t know the capacity to do it, it’s just not going to work. I relate it to dating. If I have to talk somebody into marrying me, it’s probably not going to work, right.
Adam Robinson: Yeah. Typically, that does not turn out well. What do you think then is the most important leadership quality you bring to the table? Knowing what you know about yourself and what you’re good at and not good at, what do you bring that helps you build your best team?
Dan Bocik: Well you mentioned the word leadership, it’s that I’m willing to do whatever it takes. At the heart of it, I’m a blue collar worker. I know how to do construction. I’m the best dishwasher in the world. I’m the best floor sweeper, floor mopper, painter, touch up. I can do all those things. People don’t believe it until I show them, but I find that when I actually show people how to do their job and do that alongside with them and show them the pride that comes in from doing what people perceive as the most mundane task, that’s really the highest level of service that we can do to people. If we’re not in the service business, then we should find something else where we don’t have to deal with people.
Adam Robinson: Right.
Dan Bocik: Right. When I work with somebody, that’s really all I want. I’ll give you an example.
Adam Robinson: Sure.
Dan Bocik: My chef right now, he was a bad dishwasher. He was the kind of guy that I sent home. It’s like, “Okay, there’s no customers. Go home,” and it’s 7:30 or 8:00. After two, three years he was a dishwasher, my kitchen changed. The guy that I had at the time was going to fire the guy. He goes, “Ah, he doesn’t know anything. He doesn’t know anything.” I spent 15 minutes with the guy teaching him how to grill a steak. I sat with him. I looked at it. We talked one-on-one, personal, mindful, present. The guy will cook circles around me today. That came from 15 minutes of just sitting and talking to him because he didn’t know, and I know. That’s my example of leadership.
Adam Robinson: Amazing. All right, so learn by doing.
Dan Bocik: Alongside with someone because just like you have a child, I have a child. What do they really want? They want someone to sit and draw on a piece of paper with them, sit and pull bugs out of the carpet. That, to be present with somebody, that connection is really what we want.
Adam Robinson: Yeah, absolutely.
Dan Bocik: Then it pays off in spades in business because I couldn’t keep finding another guy year after year of a turnover like that.
Adam Robinson: Do you find that your retention rates are higher than either restaurateurs you know or what your results used to be when you made this transitions of values-based hiring and spending, I like how you said, that very present, intentional time with people?
Dan Bocik: Absolutely. Because they’re in the right place, and I’m in the right place with them. They’re the right person for the right job at the right time. At the end of the day, I don’t think it’s really the job that they really love. They do love this, but for some people, it’s a job. It’s a place to go make money, and they don’t have to be as passionate about it as I am, but they feel heard. I set them up to be successful. That’s my job as a leader to find out what the boundaries of their job and their tasks are and show them the edge like a dog in a yard. Here’s the fence. You don’t need to go beyond that, but here’s where we’re working. Here’s how to do, and we’ll demonstrate it together.
Adam Robinson: That’s great. We talk a lot on this show about industries where recruiting is tough. In today’s economy, the labor pool is really tight. We talk about automotive retail. We talk about service-based …
Dan Bocik: Right.
Adam Robinson: … businesses, restaurant businesses, lower paying jobs, more vocational-based jobs and how hard it is to find really, really good people. The concept that we believe in here and that I believe in is that if you think of your jobs as products, and you market them like products, they have to be unique in the market so that the best consumers of those products, your job applicants, the very best want to buy your product versus the restaurant next door’s product. What are you doing to sell this environment because it’s exceptional and it’s different? Do you feel like you’re leveraging that to market your opportunities more effectively or find that you get better people because perhaps you’re known for running things the way you run them?
Dan Bocik: I think that people are either attracted to the job and the description that I lay out, or they’re not. Maybe that’s in what you said.
Adam Robinson: That’s exactly it. The way I describe it is like it’s a giant bar magnet. I repels the wrong and attracts the right.
Dan Bocik: Yes. Exactly. Can you restate the question?
Adam Robinson: Yeah. My question to you is do you find success in you’re selling a workplace environment? You’re not selling a job.
Dan Bocik: Absolutely.
Adam Robinson: That has produced a better result than peer restaurants. Do people ask you how you do it? The high retention rates, that’s the nirvana for hospitality business.
Dan Bocik: Yes. I reserve the right to change my answer.
Adam Robinson: Never underestimate my capacity to over complicate the question.
Dan Bocik: Yes. Well a very important person I heard is Start with Why, Simon Sinek. I start with why. Tell me why are we doing this. We’re not just sweeping the floor. I tried to have a girlfriend work with me one time, as many people have tried to do in the past. It didn’t work out, but she felt really bad about just pouring water in her boyfriend’s restaurant. That was her perception of it that she’s just pouring water in her boyfriend’s restaurant. She was reluctant to do it. She didn’t care. She had a bad look on her face. If we just think of we’re just pouring water in a restaurant, then it’s not the right thing. If we feel like we’re feeding people’s souls at the dinner table and they’re here for an experience, that really puts it into perspective.
Adam Robinson: Sure does.
Dan Bocik: That’s what we’re doing.
Adam Robinson: How long did she last in the restaurant?
Dan Bocik: In the restaurant, probably a long weekend.
Adam Robinson: All right, not long. Not long then. What do you think is the biggest lesson you’ve learned so far, either through a particular event or experience or just based on 23 years of being in a tough business about the people side of your business?
Dan Bocik: That every business is a people business. Every business is a person. There’s a person at the other side of every desk, every phone call, everybody that walks in, and it’s an opportunity to serve them or not. I went to the … What is it called, the hotel conference. It was a hotel conference at the Biltmore. I sat in a round table discussion of high end hotels. They all have the same problem, hiring, from the top of the line, uber luxury, glamping place to quick service. One of the things that really stood out was do not give the guest a job. We are in the hospitality business.
Adam Robinson: What do you mean do not give the guest a job? Tell me what that means.
Dan Bocik: Well, they used, the guest shouldn’t have to move furniture in a hotel room to stay there. They shouldn’t have to move furniture to plug their phone in.
Adam Robinson: I know exactly what you’re talking about, yes.
Dan Bocik: Don’t give the guest a job. They hire us to do what they don’t want to or don’t know how to do. I see it at the table. If I go to any restaurant, I expect the server that I’m going to pay to deliver my food and clear away my food. If they want to give me a job by making me work by clearing the table for them, I expect half the pay.
Adam Robinson: Right, sure.
Dan Bocik: I don’t want to have a job. I already have enough jobs. I want to be served.
Adam Robinson: Very good. You say all businesses can learn from that.
Dan Bocik: I believe so because why are people coming to this business in the first place? Why do I got to Hireology? Because A. I don’t know how to hire and Adam does, and you are the professional at doing this. I don’t know how to do it …
Adam Robinson: Thank you.
Dan Bocik: … so I’m going to learn something from you.
Adam Robinson: Sure. You’re pretty good at this though, P.S.
Dan Bocik: Well I’m pretty good now, but those 19 years is not negligible of making hiring mistakes.
Adam Robinson: Sure, sure. Very good. What’s one thing you think you could get better at as it relates to the people side of the business you’re running?
Dan Bocik: Staying up on the strategies of younger people’s mentality. I’m getting older. I’m 53 now. When I opened my restaurant, I was 30. The world was a different place. What I don’t want to be is I don’t want to be like my dad, stuck in music of the 60s. You know what I mean? I want to be changing with the times in an appropriate way. As society changes, there’s new things that can easily pass me by. I want to stay fresh and open and open-minded because people in their mid-20s now, they have exceptional skills. It’s a different value system from mine in a way, but when we can meet, it’s really magic.
Adam Robinson: Is there a particular moment or example you could share with us about where you’re traditional perception or approach has changed because you’ve had a newer member of the workforce come change that perception?
Dan Bocik: Yes. In my cooking class, I teach a cooking class at a tavola on a Monday night. It’s a group of people that come. There’s always interesting people that come. One, it was a young woman, and her job was to teach millennial characteristics to mid-level managers. That was her job. I asked, “What is the characteristics of millennials in the workforce,” which everybody seems to want to know. One of those points was they don’t want to be bossed. They want to be mentored.
Dan Bocik: Also, they respect their time because they saw their parents probably getting screwed by the company or something like that. They’re like, “I’m nine-to-five. My life has an appropriate place. It’s not just going to be a leaky boundary, leaking over into my job, or I should be here.” They’re like, “It’s 5:00, and I’m gone.” I just tailor my job description around their value, which wasn’t mine. Mine was, “Hey, you’re here to work. Let’s get here early. Let’s stay late with no end time.” I find myself very alone working like that.
Adam Robinson: Sure. It’s great though, Dan. You’re talking about things that most business owners in retail and hospitality businesses struggle with.
Dan Bocik: Struggle.
Adam Robinson: It’s hours and shift management. Why can’t I get people to work more than 40 hours a week? People lament the fact that it’s not the way that they did it. They can’t understand it, but then you changed it, and it’s made an impact. That’s great to hear that success story. That’s just atypical from what I hear. People generally fight against it rather than embrace it. Well done, sir.
Dan Bocik: It was grow or go.
Adam Robinson: Grow or go indeed. I have to ask you as we wrap up our time, what is your favorite thing that you make and serve at your restaurant? What’s your favorite thing?
Dan Bocik: The number one thing is gnocchi. I make gnocchi. Gnocchi is a potato dumpling that Italians eat as a pasta. I’ll tell you the story of why I became that was that I knew how to bake bread. When I was in cooking school and worked in other restaurants, I understood how to handle dough. When I was a chef of a restaurant in Italy, I took three or four traditional gnocchi recipes, and I lightened them up. I made them for my taste and really Americans’ taste. That’s how that came to be. Also, when I opened my business, I realized when I didn’t have a menu or a concept, that I would have to do something that people couldn’t get anywhere else.
Dan Bocik: It’s like when you go to a Chinatown restaurant, you see the menu, the same menu number six next to the number six at the next place and the next place. There’s no differentiation between restaurant or restaurant. Mine, I wanted to make every menu item unique and different that people couldn’t get anywhere else. If people wanted gnocchi, they had to come here. That seems to be what my heroes in business do as well is do something narrow and deep. If people really want that, they have to come to you to get it.
Adam Robinson: That’s great. Sage advice. You’re a student constantly, right? You’re a …
Dan Bocik: Yes, lifelong learner
Adam Robinson: … lifelong learner that I know. What book are you reading right now, and would you recommend it to our audience?
Dan Bocik: Yes. It just escapes my mind. I didn’t read it last night.
Adam Robinson: You can take your time with it.
Dan Bocik: Oh yes. I am reading it, and I have to say it’s Reinventing Organizations.
Adam Robinson: By whom?
Dan Bocik: By Frederic Laloux, L-A-L-O-U-X. In addition to Adam Robinson of Hireology being …
Adam Robinson: Free plug.
Dan Bocik: … truly, and I’m not just saying it cause I’m sitting in front of you, one of my business heroes, I have another business hero for Zak and Ryan at Punchkick. I just can’t get my mind around how they run their business organization. When I heard Zak talking about the book, Reinventing Organization, I bought it, and I’m devouring it. We have characteristics of a teal corporation, a teal company.
Adam Robinson: What does that mean?
Dan Bocik: The teal, that’s a color that they assign to nontraditional business organizations where there’s a traditioanl hierarchy of authoritarian or a group conscious kind of running business module. It’s a very, very different way, but I have to say that it resonates with me because I’m more like Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn, whose the guy whitewashing the fence, made it really appealing to do, and then I slip away and …
Adam Robinson: Right.
Dan Bocik: … let them do the work.
Adam Robinson: Sure.
Dan Bocik: That was my philosophy all the way.
Adam Robinson: The Mr. Miyagi approach.
Dan Bocik: Yes. Reinventing Organizations is something that I truly strive to do as my business expands and becomes truly global because it’s decentralized. There’s no me in the office, telling people what to do to lay out clear expectations and hold people accountable after I get the right people on the team.
Adam Robinson: Very good. Dan, that is the final word today. Ladies and gentleman, you’ve been learning from Dan Bocik, founder and owner a tavola. When you are in Chicago, there is no better place to stop by. Check out their website and make yourself a reservation and enjoy one of the finest meals you can have. Dan, thank you for being …
Dan Bocik: Thank you.
Adam Robinson: … with us on the program. That’s a wrap today for this episode of The Best Team Wins Podcast where we’re featuring entrepreneurs and business leaders whose exceptional approach to the people side of their business has led to incredible results. My name is Adam Robinson, author of the book, The Best Team Wins, which you can find online at www.thebestteamwins.com. Thanks for tuning in to this week’s episode. We will see you right here next week.
Announcer: Thanks for listening to The Best Team Wins Podcast with Adam Robinson. You can find out more information about Adam and his book, The Best Team Wins: Building Your Business Through Predictive Hiring at thebestteamwins.com. Thanks again for listening, and we’ll see you next week.